Peter Gilmore’s food opera

Peter Gilmore works in what is arguably one the best office settings in Australia, if not the world – the Sydney Opera House. Each day he looks out over Sydney Harbour at Bennelong restaurant with a “strong” piccolo latte in hand, and marvels at how lucky he is.

“It’s pretty cool,” Peter says. “I get to work in one of the most recognisable and beautiful buildings in the world – it’s certainly a great motivator. I try to do justice to the building and represent how great Australian cuisine is, so you do feel a weight of expectation, but it’s a great honour.”

As Executive Chef of Bennelong and Quay, Peter is fortunate to work with some of Australia’s greatest producers, from farmers to fishermen, breeders to providores, and coffee roasters are no exception.

“The thing about coffee is that it’s often the last thing your customers have at your restaurant, so the quality has to be really high,” Peter says. “What I find, though, is that the person making the coffee is just as important as the product in some respects. The barista needs to be skilled, and it’s the little things that can make a difference – how much pressure you apply to the tamp, how you adjust the grind setting, and texture the milk. Someone with a bit more knowledge on how to make coffee can make a big difference to producing a great coffee rather than a reasonable one.”

Both restaurants serve Sydney’s Single O coffee. Peter gets right into the selection process and has worked with the Single O team to develop a specific blend for Quay, which seats about 100 people per day, and the Paradox Blend at Bennelong, which caters for a higher volume of coffee due to the daily turnover of about 200 people.

Peter is an avid coffee drinker, but it hasn’t always been that way.

“As a teenager of 14, 15, and 16, I really did not like coffee. I found it quite bitter and not very interesting. I thought: ‘What’s the fuss?’ Mum and dad used to own an Italian percolator in the early 70s and would get their beans roasted from Andronicus and brew up the coffee in the mornings. They were tea drinkers too, so I drank tea as an adolescent and never really loved coffee until I was into my 30s and started drinking it.”

At first, Peter’s caffeine consumption was a means to help him get through the long hours working in commercial kitchens, but over time he developed a taste for it.

“I look for a nice, strong, assertive, balanced flavour. I do enjoy nice nutty characteristics. I’m not a fan of coffees too bitter or over roasted. I like a quality bean where you can taste the fruit and has lots of complexity, but at the same time I like it to finish quite rounded,” he says.

If Peter’s out late at night he’ll have a macchiato, but in the morning it’s always a piccolo latte. “I have about four to five coffees in a working day and two on my day off. Did I mention the working days involve double shots?” he laughs. “That means I have ‘very strong’ piccolo latte.”

Peter is a world-renowned and celebrated chef, but admits his coffee making skills are just “reasonable”.

“I tend to make my morning coffee myself at work. I don’t try to put five hearts in my coffee. I just make a nice strong coffee with a little bit of milk in it, and I’m happy with that – as long as the grind has been set, I tamp it well, and don’t burn the milk,” he says.
n Just as Peter is critical of his own coffee making, he says it’s thanks to the public’s knowledge and expectations of good coffee that’s seen Australia’s coffee scene develop as one of the best in the world.

“Australians, from a world point of view, have such a high standard of coffee in general. I think it’s thanks to the micro roasters and companies trying to push each other towards excellence and in turn the baristas, that’s resulted in a chain reaction of quality cafés. If you don’t make a good coffee in Sydney or Melbourne, you’re not going to stay in business very long,” Peter says.

“I’ve travelled quite a lot with my job, and I think it’s harder to find good coffee in Europe than it is in Australia, in countries like France and Spain, even Italy up to a point – although we definitely owe a heap to the early Italian pioneers of coffee shops. Without that heritage we wouldn’t have had a base to build on. But to be honest, from what I’ve experienced in the world, Australia is definitely streets ahead when it comes to coffee quality. Anytime I’ve had a really good coffee in the United Kingdom was because an Australian or New Zealander was behind the machine.”

When it comes to our restaurant scene, Peter says our standards are parallel.

“Australian restaurants are up there with some of the best in the world, for sure. Our innovation and our great produce has enabled us to produce a very high standard  of cuisine from all levels, right through from casual cafés right to fine dining,” he says.
n “When tourists come to Australia, they don’t really know what to expect, but I think they leave with an incredibly good impression of our food.”

Peter says it’s hard to define Australian cuisine, but to him it’s about interpretation and being open to our multicultural society.

“What links it together is the quality of the produce. We don’t have a conservative public. We have a very open public when it comes to different flavours, techniques, and textures of food from around the world, which as a chef allows you a lot of creativity. This, I think, is the hallmark of Australian dining, as well as our level of professionalism and friendliness in service,” he says.

Peter credits his experience of multicultural dining to his childhood experiences that helped shape his culinary style.

The full article features in the February 2016 edition of BeanScene Magazine.

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